Oh, the symbolic grandeur of black-and-white. Such photography has made specific storytelling as the Universal monster classics and the likes of "Psycho", "Carnival of Souls", "Night of the Living Dead" and "Eraserhead" cinematic stand-outs.
A most recent example of moody black-and-white has taken residence next to the aforementioned classics, thanks to writer/director Nicolas Pesce and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein. The film is entitled "The Eyes of My Mother", and in this particular case, its brooding aura also becomes representative of its lead character.
She's named Francisca, played as a child by the chilling Olivia Bond and by the haunting Kika Magalhaes as a young adult. Francisca's mother (Diane Agonstini), we learn, was once an eye surgeon in Portugal, and she teaches her daughter her techniques on cows, explaining that the eyes of the latter are similar to those of humans. It's her mother's hope that Francisca will someday become a surgeon: in essence, not only utilize the specialized skills she's learned, but on an implied level, see the world through her mother's eyes.
Francisca's mother is content living on a desolate farm with her somber husband (Paul Nazak), who seems most content when viewing television westerns. Francisca's interaction with those beyond her home is limited, though she doesn't have reason to mind. (Incidentally, the story appears to take place in the '60s, though no specific date is ever attached, so it might simply be that the quirky clan favors furnishings of past eras.)
A stranger named Charlie (Will Brill) approaches their home one afternoon, seemingly to sell goods, but his intent is otherwise, which leads (SPOILER) to the mother's death, and the father shackling Charlie in the barn, so that the youngster can experiment on him as she wishes. (BTW: Charlie sticks around for most of the movie.)
The ambiguity of Francisca's parents (why her mother left her practice and her father's nondescript background) adds a weird quality to the film's earliest phases, but developments becomes all the weirder when the odd, little girl grows into a pretty--and even odder--young woman. Francisca's general disposition is in tune with Norman Bates, or more so perhaps Bates' founder, Ed Gein: Francisca eventually keeps her father's corpse after he passes and ultimately seeks others to replace those who've left her, albeit in the most sadistic ways.
Other young women figure into the story, one whom Francisca meets at a bar (Clara Wong) and the other on a hitchhiking ploy, who's a mother (Flora Diaz) with an infant son (later played by Joey Curtis-Green). Francisca is charming enough to lure them into her web, but once there, escape is nearly impossible, though they certainly try. One in particular marches forth to expose Francisca, but I'd be as cruel as our beguiling black widow if I revealed precisely how.
For the sake of atmosphere, Pesce's style is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman; Herk Harvey; Tobe Hooper; Takasi Miike; and Nicholas Roeg. Much of the film feels like Jack Hill's "Spider Baby", but with a sullen twinge, as well as Jen and Sylvia Soska's "American Mary", though countrified. The ambiance is often open and ironically free, but when focus falls upon its nightmarish interiors, claustrophobia kicks in, increasing the merciless intensity, but never becoming so repellent that one must turn away.
In a similar vein, the performances are impressive throughout, if only for their subdued realism. Such raw subtlety furthers the film's air of dread, making several moments comparable to certain passages featured in "Texas Chainsaw '73". Indeed, the story and its characters could be found (shudder!) in any sequestered time or place.
Though Bond is memorable as little Francisca, Magalhaes owns the part. She has the makings of another Barbara Steele or Ingrid Pitt, if she should choose the horror genre as her home. She's easy on the eyes, emitting the perfect, misdirecting cover that the disturbing set-up requires. The black-and-white atmosphere also complements her, so that after a time, she becomes indivisible with Kuperstein's contrasting shades. Yes, black-and-white was a wise choice for this fable, for though color may have been acceptable, it wouldn't have reached such an unnerving level.
Considering its association with the Sundance Film Festival, where it gained significant exposure, one might assume "Eyes of My Mother" no more than another artsy experiment. It's far more than that, of course: a top-notch, psychological thriller, which digs deep into the vile depths where madness and innocence inexplicably merge. There are times when one can easily look upon poor, demented Francisca and say, "There but for the grace of God go I," and yet at the same time, one will pray never to cross the path of one so severe.
("Eyes of My Mother" is presently available for rental through Amazon.)